How I learned to love Cinco de Mayo


Cinco de Mayo was never a big deal in my family. We never gathered ’round the dinner table over tacos and guac, decorated our home with papel picado or clinked our margarita glasses in remembrance of how great Mexico was (and is).

Let me clarify: We did gather around my abuelita’s table, over the salsa roja in the molcajete, with tortillas coming in fresh from the comal, surrounded by plates of nopales, frijolesyarroz. But that’s what we did most weekends during my California childhood. Heck, that’s what my family does most weekends now, too.


I do have one distinct memory of Cinco de Mayo. I grew up in Compton, across the street from my tia’s house. My elementary school was a quick five-minute walk around the block, next door to the middle school where all the cool, older kids went. Every morning, my cousins and I would saunter off to Emerson Elementary, clad in our maroon-and-white school uniforms, and stare longingly at the middle school future that would one day be ours. Back then, I didn’t realize that Compton was the most dangerous city in California. To me, it was just home.

Breakfast spread at my abuela’s house, Mexico
Breakfast spread at the house of the author’s abuela in Mexico

I remember one Cinco de Mayo dressing up in a red, white and green traditional folklorico skirt, hair done up in a bun, donning a festive Mexican ribbon that would constantly come undone. I remember my cousin, Jesse, in cowboy hat and bandana. I remember a parade of some sort, where Jesse and I danced to traditional baile folklorico. I don’t remember the song or why we did it, except that it was Cinco de Mayo so I guess we had to. It didn’t really mean anything to me. All I knew was that I was Mexican and it was kinda cool that I got to wear this outfit. It made my abuelita happy and my baby cousin jealous.

It wasn’t until I moved to Canada fresh out of college that I realized Cinco de Mayo was a big deal.

It wasn’t until I moved to Canada fresh out of college that I realized Cinco de Mayo was a big deal. Like a really big deal. Cue the ads for taco specials, dollar tequila shots and half-priced margaritas. My not-Mexican friends would gear up for a big Cinco de Mayo celebration, and I’d join because, obviously, I do love Mexico and welcomed anything that reminded me of the family I had left behind.

And then I would get angry. Angry that people didn’t really know the Mexico I knew and loved. Angry at everyone who donned the sombreros and ate Taco Bell and shouted “Happy Cinco de Mayo!” and then moved on with their lives. Mexico is more than resorts and fish tacos. Why couldn’t people see that?

The author with two cousins before the Cinco de Mayo parade, 1998
The author (center) and her two cousins before the Cinco de Mayo parade, 1998

In time, I learned to turn that anger into a learning opportunity—to show people that Cinco de Mayo is not a big deal in most of Mexico, and that’s O.K. I tried to tell the people in my life of the beauty, color and splendor of culture that makes me beam with pride, the same pride my grandmother felt back in 1998 as I bounced off to my parade.

In reality, Cinco de Mayo is only celebrated in a small part of Mexico, the town of Puebla. It is a commemoration of the Battle of Puebla, when the Mexican army beat the occupying French forces on the fifth of May in 1862. It was a small victory for Mexico, which would go on to lose the second battle of Puebla. In the United States, people commonly mistake Cinco de Mayo for Mexican Independence Day, which is part of the reason I use to have such disdain for the holiday.

Today, I still get upset when people try to make everything a taco or a burrito, but I am working through my rigid views on the proper uses of tortillas. (Pray for me.) I tell myself that today, more than ever, it is important to celebrate a culture that is also under constant attack. This day is a chance to show people that Mexico is a country full of warm, hardworking, happy people (who are also the best cooks). In short, it’s O.K. for Americans (and Canadians!) to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. It only took me 26 (and a half) years to come to that conclusion. (Sidenote, Cinco de Mayo is also my half-birthday so all the more reason to celebrate!)

I hope you join me in commemorating the people and culture that helped make the United States the place it is today. (Unless you put basil in your guacamole. You can just stick with the Kentucky Derby.) To the cooks and nannies, cleaning ladies and farm workers, happy Cinco de Mayo! We need you.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Rita Rings
3 months 2 weeks ago

Gracias! Ilearned alot from you.

Rita Rings
3 months 2 weeks ago

Gracias! Ilearned alot from you.

More: Mexico

The latest from america

People bury a prisoner who was killed during a prison riot in Altamaria, Para state, Brazil, on July 31. Grieving families began to arrive that day at the cemetery of Altamira to mourn some of the 58 inmates killed by a rival gang in a grisly prison riot. (AP Photo/Raimundo Pacco)
Deadly riots regularly occur in the third-largest prison system in the world, reports Eduardo Campos Lima, and Brazilian authorities are restricting the practice of religion rather than address overcrowding, gang activity and other problems.
Eduardo Campos LimaAugust 21, 2019
Love created us to be distinct from itself so that we could choose to love. It will not annihilate us, overwhelm who we are.
Terrance KleinAugust 21, 2019
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty at the White House in Washington Dec. 8 1987. (CNS photo/Reuters)
Without the I.N.F. Treaty, there are no longer any limits on destabilizing intermediate-range weapons. There are also no mechanisms for verification and transparency measures or other confidence-building exchanges among military officials and nuclear arms scientists.
Maryann Cusimano LoveAugust 21, 2019
Each grandparent finds their own way to maintain connections, build relationships and meet the challenges of sharing their Catholic faith from afar.
John FeisterAugust 21, 2019